Literally, “sniffing the breeze.” It signifies the rising of the Egyptian people, Coptic as well as Muslim, at dawn to go to fields and gardens to inhale the pure air of the first day of spring, when the new vegetation is green and the Nile flood starts swelling. This is one of the most popular feast days in Egypt, and its beginnings are rooted in remote antiquity.
Though it has no religious significance for the Copts, it is always associated with Easter, on the second day of which it is celebrated every year. It is the beginning of the period known as Khamasin (Fifty Days), a special season recognized from ancient times for the occasional hot winds from the desert, sometimes accompanied by sandstorms.
On the eve of Shamm al-Nasim, people hang green onions on their doors and place them under their pillows, to ward off disease and epidemics. Food on that day traditionally includes onions and pickled fish. The place of onions in the Shamm al-Nasim festivities as healing ingredient and as food must be related to dynastic habits; onion bunches are seen in the temple and tomb paintings and have been found with mummies.
To this day the farmers of Egypt believe in the medicinal effects of the onion. As food it is nourishing, appetizing, soothing, healing, and even aphrodisiac. Herodotus made a special mention of the enormous amounts of onions consumed by the Egyptians. In modern times onions remain a chief staple on Shamm al-Nasim for all Egyptians.
- Blackman, W. S. The Fellaheen of Upper Egypt, Their Religious, Social, and Industrial Life Today, with Special Reference to Survivals from Ancient Egypt. London, 1927.
- Nerval, G. de. Voyage en Orient, 2 vols. Paris, 1958.
- Wassef, Cérès Wissa. Pratiques rituelles et alimentaires des coptes, 25. 220-25. Cairo, 1971.
AZIZ S. ATIYA